AABP Award 728x90

Merger is needed to match the competition


Look around Des Moines today, and you’ll probably see excitement. There is construction downtown, new businesses are opening all the time, and neighborhoods around the city are finding new life. Things seem to be looking up for our hometown.

Yet Des Moines faces a significant challenge, because the truth is, we are losing ground to our metro competitors. In 1970, families in the Des Moines area enjoyed average incomes that comfortably exceeded those in Kansas City, Omaha and Sioux City. We were nearly equal to the Minneapolis metro. Not true today. Average incomes in these nearby metros have caught up and are passing us by, and Minneapolis has pulled out to a double-digit lead.

Why are we not keeping pace? Doesn’t it seem that Des Moines, Polk County and our suburbs are doing pretty well? What are these other metros doing that we are not?

The answer is simple — other regions have embraced a comprehensive strategy to grow as a single community, while we have not. The plain fact is that in spite of our nibbling around the edges and sharing a few programs, we are holding on to an outdated, dual system of governments that is woefully inefficient, cumbersome and costly.

Duplicate departments continue to provide similar services to many of the same people, wasting taxpayer dollars and impeding effective local government. For example, county and city record-keeping officials maintain separate files, despite the fact that most of their constituents are the same. County and city law enforcement personnel use incompatible 911 dispatch systems, and last year spent a total of $7 million improving them, when a little coordination could do a better job at much less cost. County and city purchasing officials buy new office furniture and vehicles without first checking with one another for excess equipment. And each maintains separate outside contracts for software updates, translation services and other duties that cannot be performed by civil servants. The list of duplicated services goes on and on, and taxpayers pay the price for every one.

With one government, we could address these issues, save significant dollars and improve efficiency. Yet what is done will depend on our own good ideas. The citizens’ commission that drafted the proposed charter ensured that decisions to consolidate departments would be made openly and democratically, with input from everyone affected. And despite the myth spread by opponents, a unified government cannot cost more than dual governments, because state law prevents the council from raising property and occupational taxes without voter approval. We can take it fast, like Louisville, which has consolidated a number of city and county offices since merging in 2003; or slow, like Indianapolis, which more than 30 years after merger is still working toward more unification. The point is that these decisions will be up to us, as a metro region, for the first time in our history.

Our current system is at a major disadvantage when it comes to attracting and retaining jobs and businesses. One government will have one leader able to deal more effectively with corporations that can bring quality jobs to Des Moines. We’ll rise in national ranking as a city — and that ranking is important to businesses looking to invest. A unified government would restore Des Moines’ status as a dynamic and nationally competitive city, enhancing both the city center and the suburbs to no end. City-county communities like Kansas City, Kan. and Indianapolis frequently credit merger with jump-starting their economic success. Our own business community recognizes this, which is why 87 percent of local business leaders responding to a poll said they favored unified government. They make it clear that merger is critical to Des Moines’ long-term prosperity.

The word “unity” means “a condition of harmony.” It’s time for Des Moines and Polk County to unite and begin singing from the same songbook. It’ll be a much better tune than the one we’re singing now.

Jim Hubbell is chairman and chief executive officer of CB Richard Ellis/Hubbell Commercial.

forvis web 061022 300x250